Looking Forward 2017 Week Seven – Racing Towards the Finish
As we transition into the final weeks of FIRST STEAMworks, the meta at high level events has shifted from simply reaching the fourth rotor to finding out what alliances can achieve beyond the fourth rotor. Week six’s district championship play demonstrated that competitive fields can assemble several alliances capable of earning the 100 point bonus for activating the final rotor, and the championship alliances had to find ways to differentiate themselves. While a couple alliances opted to find a 20 point edge via intricate choreography of pilots and robots during autonomous, fuel and defense were the more common paths. Where highly functional autonomous shooters were available they were frequently off the board very early in alliance selection. There tended to be much more drama near the end of alliance selection, where even the top alliances had a glut of options to select from. With no points advantage for being a 15 gear alliance compared to a 12 gear alliance, captains weren’t simply bound to selecting the team that could score the most gears. That freed up captains to look for other attributes in alliance partners, ranging from specific autonomous routines to drivetrain characteristics to drive team’s comfort levels working together.
Week seven brings a fresh take on week six’s developments. Only three events are occurring this weekend, but each is a fairly unique affair. The Michigan State Championship’s division format will be a game changer in terms of DCMP play. With each division composed of only 40 teams, high ranked captains will not have nearly as many options to select from (albeit almost all of the options they do have are highly qualified), which creates the possibility for very different personalities and play styles in each playoff tournament. As the winners of each division head into the MSC finals on Saturday afternoon, the endurance of each machine will be put to a serious test with two additional playoff rounds, and upwards of 50 matches of wear and tear on the season.
Comparing the playoffs between Michigan and those in the Ontario DCMP and Seven Rivers Regional will be interesting. Ontario’s first ever provincial championship is less exclusive in terms of the percentage of the district population that earned an invite than Michigan is, however without divisions, their elimination bracket will be much harder to reach. While Michigan has obviously a much larger pool of teams to draw from (resulting in the proportionalities of the district population not being too far off), only 24 competitors will reach the playoffs in Ontario compared to 96 in Michigan. Michigan’s divisional balancing should help even these results some, but it will be interesting to see if there’s any dilution of talent in the playoff pools when comparing Michigan to Ontario to the traditional regional format at Seven Rivers. Will “death by serpentine” be more common in Michigan when the powerhouses are split up and have a more limited pool of picks? Will there be better odds of high powered fuel launchers pairing up together in Ontario or Wisconsin?
Consumers Energy will pit a couple top shooters against a field of gear scorers, and could see some interesting battles of play styles as a result. Triple event winners 910 stands out as the exceptional shooter, but Foley typically has to dedicate virtually all of their match if they want to threaten the 40kPa threshold. 217 is the other team with a hopper popping autonomous shooter, although the Thunder Chickens haven’t quite dialed in that particular routine yet. 217 boasts most of the features you want to see from an elite contender, including that autonomous mode and ground gear acquisition, but despite advancing to Einstein and pulling off a historic 16-over-1 upset at MSC last year, the Thunder Chickens haven’t picked up an event win in Michigan since their 2013 state championship as the 23rd selection. 1506’s will look to increase the kPa they can contribute with their side peg and shoot routine, but even if they cannot, Metal Muscle should still contend with their fast, ground-loading gear cycler. 51 stands out as another terrific gear runner in the division, and reached the finals at both of their events (winning Howell). 302 paired up with Wings of Fire for that Howell championship, snapping a six finals losing streak and earning their first banner since the 2003 season (when they not only won GLR, but reached Einstein). 2619 and 4391 also paired a second place finish with an event win this season. Simple yet effective rookies 6753 and the nimble 5205 didn’t manage to secure a banner this year, but should be in the mix as effective playoff contributors.
Some of FiM’s biggest names were placed in the Dow division, which will surely make it one of the most popular for spectators both inside and outside of Michigan. Despite not being as known outside of Michigan, 4967’s performance at East Kentwood makes them not only the state’s best fuel robot, but arguably the favorite in the division. That ONE Team secured bonus ranking points in nine of their twelve qualification matches and all seven playoff matches at East Kentwood. 33 could be their biggest rival in securing the top seed, and with their incredible gear acquisition system and high potential autonomous routines, they possess the highest ceiling of any team in the division. Yet the Bees have been stopped short of gold in both of their outings after their week one victory in Southfield (albeit in the finals and as the top overall pick in both). A bevy of other teams will be able to snatch gears off the field, including the Martian twins (494 and 70), 67, 2054, 1684, and 2834. Among the pure cyclers who rely on having gears dropped into their robots, 2960 and 1025 stand out as the best in the division, although 469 is not terribly far behind.
Without as many top shooters as other divisions, DTE Energy will likely revolve around gears and climbing. 2337 stands out as the exception to the rule here, with the EngiNERDs high upside autonomous mode helping push them over the 40kPa mark several times in the past two events. However, despite ranking in the top five at all three of their events, 2337 only reached the finals once and has yet to take home a banner this season. Conversely 5053 picked up blue banners at both of their events this season, and combine the ability to put up autonomous fuel points when scoring on the center peg with quality gear running. 5675 also went 2/2 in their district qualifier events, albeit in upset fashion as they won from the #6 and #7 alliances. 2832, 3770, 894, 2016 Einstein veterans 3538, and the ridiculously fast 4003 also each secured a banner as an effective gear scoring machines. For the Power Chargers, that marked their first banner in their sixteen year history, helping them secure their first trip to MSC since 2010. 5166 couldn’t quite break through for a victory, but captained two different #2 alliances to the finals this year.
Despite the great efforts of the FiM brass in balancing the divisions, Ford does seem to stand out as potentially the strongest and deepest field. It combines a blend of effective shooters and some elite gear runners, and has all the fixings for a hotly contested and dynamic playoff tournament. 2767 seemingly does everything, with an effective shooter, sweet swerve drive, and capability to lift gears from the floor. After getting 40 kPa in 9/12 qualifying matches in East Kentwood they have shown that they can play the seeding game as well as anyone. Stryke Force is arguably the best in the state after winning both of their events as the first selection. 27 made it to the finals in all three events they attended this year and has two silvers and a gold to show for it. They combine a strong autonomous mode with efficient gear cycling to become a very strong and well rounded competitor. 3357 and 314 are both a step below the top two shooters, but they are both dangerous. 3357 won the Lansing district, but after being eliminated in the QFs as the #2 seed at the East Kentwood district, they have a lot to prove. 314 is building MOmentum after winning the Livonia district last weekend and being a focal point of the winning alliance’s strategy. There’s little doubt that 3620 is the best full court cycler in Michigan, but they are rumored to be adding a ground pickup to stay on par with teams like 2137. The Average Joes and TORC picked up event wins with Stryke Force and RUSH respectively early in the year, and can both also contribute some modest fuel totals on top of their gear scores. 141’s crab drive, gear cycling, high goal shooter proved an effective competitor from lower seeded alliances all year long, winning West Michigan from the #6 seed and pulling off quarter-final upsets at two of their other three events. The WOBOTs won’t be the only team in the division looking to pull off an upset from a stacked alliance, as 3452, 3546, 3656, 74, 1243 and 1481 may also view that (or slipping back further in the draft) as a potential path to victory.
The inaugural FIRST Ontario Provincial Championship will cap off the first ever season of districts in Ontario with a bang. The rise of the middle tier teams in Ontario over the past several seasons led to a strong and diverse group of champions this season. While the district format may be new, seeing all of Ontario’s top competitors assemble together at the Hershey Centre certainly is not. The venue has played host to multiple iterations of the Greater Toronto Regional before, and is a fitting site to cap off STEAMworks in Ontario.
Discussing FRC in Ontario without discussing 2056 and 1114 would be virtually impossible, and that applies just as much to 2017 as any year prior. The two are the only teams proven capable of challenging the 40 kPa threshold in autonomous so far this season, which could prove crucial in securing high seeds (or early selections). The Simbots have rebounded definitively from a rough (by their standards) 2016 season, capturing two wins as the top overall selection. Their impressive autonomous helps offset their lack of ground loading (for both gears and fuel), and while not the highlight of their machine, their gear cycling game is respectable enough to keep them in contention. OP Robotics saw improvement on their already impressive fuel game once they adjusted their shooter angle to fire from the hopper, helping them cruise to the #1 seed at the fiercely competitive McMaster event. However, their gear game lags behind some others in the province. A dropped gear in the final fifteen seconds of SF1-3 at McMaster left OP’s alliance one gear short of the fourth rotor, sending them home from a Canadian event without a banner for just the second time in their team’s history. It was 4039, 4939, and 2386 that knocked OP out in the McMaster semis, with their consistent quad rotoring ability carrying them to gold medals at the event. It was the third win of the season for both of MakeShift and Allspark9 (and their second win together). Even as the explosion of events around FRC makes that achievement much more common than it was a decade ago, that level of success is still incredibly remarkable, and 4039 and 4939 are quietly having consistently excellent seasons as highly effective gear cycling machines.
No team embodies effective gear cycling as well as 610, who is definitively the best gear cycling team in Ontario and arguably the entire planet. Following the mold of their 2013 world champion robot, Crescent Robotics can put up ridiculous cycling totals (including a stretch of four consecutive matches with eight or more gears scored in Windsor) without the aid of a ground intake. Yet, with a hard cap on the amount of rotor points that can be achieved, it will be interesting to see how much their individual excellence in gear running will be valued, especially if they cannot increase their side peg autonomous consistency or work in meaningful amounts of fuel scoring. Highly effective dual threat teams like 4976, 5406, 865, 1305, 1241, and rookie hotshots 6387 will be looking to assemble alliances that can score enough fuel beyond the fourth rotor to secure wins and advance in the playoffs. Windsor-Essex winners 4917 will also be looking to join that crowd, although their side peg and shoot autonomous rarely secures more than a couple kPa at the moment.
There’s little doubt that all eight alliances will have the capability of hitting the fourth rotor, and even in qualifications four rotor rates could hover around the impressive numbers of New England, Pacific Northwest, and MAR last weekend. With the sheer quantity of effective gear scoring machines at the event, teams will need to find a way to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Having a ground intake to help smooth out dropped gears and pilfer gears from the opposing loading lane may be one way to do that. 188, 1285, 2609, 2200, and 4678 stand out as some of the more capable teams in that regard. Blizzard has even accomplished the incredibly rare feat of scoring two gears in autonomous. There will be no shortage of quality teams for captains to chose from, and some effective gear scorers are going to be left outside of the playoffs, so finding any and all advantages will be crucial to not only advancing in the playoffs, but making them in the first place.
Seven Rivers, the lone regional this weekend, should not be overlooked. Even in a weekend filled with only DCMP action elsewhere, La Crosse will host some of the strongest competitors taking the field. Much of the focus will be on 1986, and if they can finally earn their first gold medal of the season. Titanium already locked in their spot in St. Louis via a wild card berth, so there’s no risk of this being their last play of the year, but there’s little doubt they’re hungry to extend their banner streak to nine consecutive seasons. 1986 wasn’t able to overcome a four rotor opponent in the CIR semis, and a twice dead partner cost them in the Midwest finals. Their shooting, both during autonomous and tele-op, is among the best in the business, reaching the 40kPa threshold in each of the last twenty-two matches they’ve played. With that kind of ranking point power, the race for the #1 seed could be between them and 2451. PWNAGE doesn’t have quite the qualification track record of Titanium, but their playoff results speak for themselves. 2451 won in both Miami Valley and Midwest (where they topped Titanium’s alliance in the finals). If either of these high powered shooters land as the top seed, how they construct their alliance will certainly be a subject for debate. Will they opt to pair up with another high efficiency boiler specialist, or will they opt for a gear runner like 48? Delphi Elite isn’t flashy, but their combination of a wide alignment funnel for human gear loading and ability to grab gears off the carpet has allowed them to captain two alliances to wins already (including with PWNAGE at Miami Valley). 48 has yet to reach the four rotor mark this season, but they also bring a strong reputation for effective defensive play to the table, which can help prevent opponents from reaching that threshold or even make the life of boiler shooters that much more difficult.
A couple other high profile teams will be working to improve their machines at the event. 2826 fell to the second round of alliance selection and was knocked out in the quarter-finals at CIR. With a quick hang and the potential for a hopper autonomous mode, Wave has potential. But they will need to cut down on the time they spend in front of the peg to score gears and cut down on the amount of gears they put on the floor (although the new spring design could help them with both). 1625 already picked up a victory in Midwest, but they were the 23rd team selected into the playoffs. If Winnovation can finish getting their shooter dialed in, they could be a very strong dual-threat and among the top teams at the event. 2194 also won an event as a late pick, besting the top seed 2062 in the semi-finals en route to picking up a banner at the Wisconsin regional. Stopping CORE in the semis is especially impressive, considering 2062 is arguably the best gear runner (and definitely the best low goal dumper) heading into Seven Rivers. 930 fell to Fondy in the Wisconsin finals, but the Mukwonago Bears’ effective gear running robot and rapid fire shooter could make them a very effective sleeper capable of pulling off some more playoff upsets. Like 930, 4959 managed to reach the finals from the #7 alliance at their previous event, and will be looking to find their way to a strong 1-2-3 punch alliance again. Rounding out the field with teams like 3418, 967, and 4655 should mean for a deep and competitive event.